The board that sets policy for the influential National Assessment of Educational Progress has postponed a decision on expanding that test for high school seniors, effectively stalling endorsement of a White House priority.
Members of the National Assessment Governing Board on May 20 tabled a proposal that would have led to providing state-by-state results from the assessment for 12th grade students—a process that is only followed for 4th and 8th grade students now.
Board members who attended the session, held in Atlanta at one of the panel’s regular, quarterly meetings, said their decision was influenced by worries about launching a significant expansion of NAEP in 12th grade at a time when they have major concerns about the participation and motivation of high school seniors who take part in a more limited, national sample of that test now.
“There was a strong desire to have a better understanding of who participates in the test, and who doesn’t, and how the relatively low participation might affect scores,” said board member John Q. Easton, the executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, at the University of Chicago.
“You need to have significant participation,” said another panelist, Andrew Porter, an education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “The data are clear,” he said of the relatively small number of students taking part. “It’s more of an issue in 12th grade than it is at 4th or 8th grade.”
The participation rate for seniors fell to 55 percent in 2002, its lowest level ever. From 1988 to 2000, that number held at around 65 percent. If test participation continues to slide, governing-board members have said, NAEP’s credibility could be jeopardized.
The governing board plans to take up again the issue of the 12th grade test at its next meeting in August. Congress would ultimately have to approve a mandatory state-by-state 12th grade NAEP for it to take effect.
Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the governing board, said the panel had an obligation to move cautiously when considering any major changes. Every factor that could affect the test’s reliability had to be considered, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a problem with support” for the 12th grade test, Mr. Winick said. “There’s a problem with doing it [to make sure there is] validity. The question is how to do it well.”
Having all states participate in the 12th grade NAEP was one of the top recommendations of an independent commission that studied testing among high school seniors. (“Panel Recommends State-Level NAEP For 12th Graders,” March 10, 2004.)President Bush publicly backed mandating the testing of reading and mathematics at that level during his campaign for re-election last year, and followed up by proposing an additional $22.5 million in his fiscal 2006 budget to help pay for that expansion. Currently, NAEP is administered among 12th graders only on a more limited scale, to provide a national sample of seniors’ academic skills.
“We’re pleased that [the governing board] continues to move toward state-by-state NAEP testing … in reading and math so that we know if all students are learning,” U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey said in a statement. “The president has supported this in his budget and we hope that Congress will agree.”
Governing-board members have known all along that expanding NAEP would require overcoming a series of hurdles. Numerous individuals and organizations have voiced concerns about increasing the testing burdens on students, school districts, and states. One such group, the Association for State Assessment Personnel, warned in a letter last year that such an effort would be “fraught with problems.” (“State Officials Urge Caution On 12th Grade NAEP,” May 26, 2004.)
As those state officials noted, NAEP does not release individual test scores to students, in contrast to many high-stakes assessments. The lack of consequences associated with NAEP would make it difficult for seniors to take it seriously, some say.
Over the past year, the governing board has considered an array of options aimed at encouraging 12th graders stricken by “senioritis” to do their best on the national assessment. Those options have included launching a broad marketing campaign to promote the test’s importance and offering material incentives, such as small gifts, to students or schools who take part.
Board members have also discussed releasing individual test scores to students and schools. But at this latest meeting, a governing board committee raised concerns about whether the federal law, which forbids the use of NAEP scores for ranking individual students or teachers, would allow the release of scores.
“Legally permissible, technically sound, timely, and potentially attractive performance data cannot be provided to either students or schools,” the committee said in a report.
Board members also have considered moving the administration of NAEP from the spring to the fall, as a way to encourage high school seniors to take the test seriously.
“With every single one of these,” said Mr. Easton, ”the deeper you dig, the more difficult the issues you uncover.”
Mark Musick, the former chairman of the governing board and the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said the panel has a history of moving slowly and deliberately on issues, even when presidential administrations publicly call for changes. That was the case with proposed changes to NAEP that President Clinton had wanted, too, he noted.
“It really didn’t matter in the end, in my opinion, that the president had wanted [some issues] on the fast track,” Mr. Musick said. “I would expect that’s true today.”